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Flu activity increased significantly across New York State, including Western New York, in the last week of 2013.

Public health officials characterized influenza as widespread, with laboratory-confirmed cases of the virus in 52 counties and New York City.

There were 1,222 laboratory-confirmed influenza reports statewide, a 119 percent increase over the previous week, the state Health Department reported. In addition, the number of patients admitted to the hospital with laboratory-confirmed influenza or hospitalized patients newly diagnosed with the flu was 287, a 126 percent increase over the same period.

It’s not possible to count every case of the flu. But health officials track the spread and level of illness by testing certain samples from patients and examining reports of patient visits to doctors and hospitals for influenzalike illness.

New York is one of 10 states reporting geographically widespread flu, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Similar to the 2009 flu season, the majority of those falling ill with this flu strain are between the ages of 18 and 49 years old,” said Dr. Gale Burstein, Erie County health commissioner.

Nationally, flu activity continues to increase, with high levels reported and additional increases expected in the coming weeks, according to the CDC.

For years, seasonal flu vaccines have protected against three strains – two types of influenza A and one of influenza B. A new vaccine also includes protection against a second strain of influenza B.

Unlike other viral respiratory infections, such as the common cold, the flu can cause serious illness, especially in the elderly, pregnant women and individuals with chronic medical conditions.

The CDC estimates that last year’s vaccine effectiveness was 56 percent for all age groups, meaning it reduced a person’s chance of getting the flu by more than half. But effectiveness was much lower for people 65 and older.

Regardless, health officials say the vaccine remains the best way to protect yourself from getting the flu or giving it to someone else.

“While the vaccine is not 100 percent effective, it offers the best protection we have against this very serious disease,” Burstein said in a statement.

She encouraged all residents six months old and older to get vaccinated to protect themselves and limit the spread of the virus. In addition to vaccination, experts say the best way to prevent the flu is to take such basic steps as frequent hand washing and covering a cough or sneeze.

“Frequent hand washing is the most important health tip for all of us to remember so that we don’t spread illness,” Burstein said.

email: hdavis@buffnews.com